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Moltmann on the Final Judgement

March 5th, 2007 by Jason · 11 Comments

Trinity church has a couple of excellent lectures by Jurgen Moltmann posted on their site. Moltmann is a Protestant theologian (not sure which denomination) from Germany. I first heard of him in college when a professor described him as someone who reads Scripture as closely as evangelicals, but often comes to novel conclusions. His first lecture, “The Final Judgement: Sunrise of Christ’s Liberating Justice,” is fascinating. Moltmann articulates the final judgement and his universalistic vision of salvation in a novel way. In his theology of the final judgement he sketches how judgement will be a thing that saves, not just destroys and how justice will be given to both the victim and perpetrators of evil. Here is my summary of his lecture with some of the questions that arose as I listened:

The dominant view of the final judgement is that God separates believers and unbelievers, and destroys the world. This develops a friend/foe way of thinking—“the expectation of an exclusive final judgement justifies the exclusion of those that do not belong to us.”

First, Moltmann looks at the history of the concept of a final judgement.  The earliest picture of judgement comes from Egypt where Osiris pronounces judgement and Anubis weighs the sum of a person’s deeds. In Christian art Osiris has been replaced by Christ and Anubis by the angel Michael. Since no one knows how righteous he or she has to be to get to heaven the expectation of judgement provokes fear and trembling. Fear of hell then increases our fear of dying, because in our last hours there is no longer time to put things right.

Modern adaptations have put the personally responsible human being at the center instead of the wrathfully judging God. No one is sent to heaven or hell against his or her will—it is a person’s will, their decision for or against God, that decides their destiny. If the responsible human being is at the center, then no one knows at what future he or she will arrive because decisions can vacillate. The last judgement becomes a symbol for the ultimate endorsement for our free will. According to both of the above ideas human beings are the masters of their own fate, or their own executioners, and the role of God is thereby reduced, an accomplice to human being’s free will.

Since Moltmann opposes both of these views of the final judgement, I wonder, then, what is the point of human free will? Perhaps we are given the ability to choose right or wrong, help or harm so that we have the real possibility of participating in God’s kingdom or the real possibility of love?

Then Moltmann asks, is a final judgement necessary?  He argues yes, because injustice cries out to high heaven and the perpetrators find no rest. The victims must not be forgotten and the murderers must not finally triumph over them. In fact, the expectation of a final judgement of divine justice was originally a vision of the victims.  They hoped for the final judge who would establish justice for those who suffer wrong, and this can be seen in the Psalms and Lamentations.   Only later did this saving judge of the victims become the judge of a criminal court before whom evil doers had to appear.

Moltmann’s next question: Who will be the judge?   His answer: The Son of Man, Jesus Christ, who came to seek that which was lost (Luke 19:10). Whoever declares that Christ has not found that which he came to seek is declaring him rather unsuccessful.  The following is his take on Christ’s appearance on Judgement day.
How will Christ appear? As divine avenger?  No. As a crucified and risen conqueror over sin, death, and hell. He is the one who has borne the suffering of the victims and the sins of the world. And he is Jesus of Nazareth who will establish the same righteousness which he proclaimed and lived during his life. The justice he will bring is not retributive justice that rewards the good and punishes the evil, but rather God’s creative justice which brings the victims justice and puts the perpetrators right. The victims will be judged and given dignity and healing. The perpetrators of evil will experience the justice that puts things to right and transforms them. They will be saved by the crucified Christ who comes to them together with their victims. Then the perpetrators will die to their evil acts and the burden of their guilt so that they are raised to a new life together with their victims (see Paul in 1 Cor. 3:12-15 where he talks about all our works being revealed through fire). Everything which is and has been in contradiction to God will be burned away so that the person who is loved by God is saved. Everything which is and has been in accord with God will be preserved. This is the victory of God’s creative justice—God’s great day of reconciliation. Both the tears of suffering and the tears of remorse will be wiped away (Rev. 21:4). Annihilated are the powers of annihilation, and the powers of evil are dissolved (Col. 2:13-15). God’s judgement is but one step on the transition from this corruptible world to the incorruptible world. Thus, the final judgement not only judges history, but also heals and corrects for the future of the Kingdom of God—it serves the new creation.

Not only will humanity be judged, but creation as well. The first creation was always threatened by chaos, by the darkness of night. In the new creation there will be no night and the chaos of the sea is stilled so that even the corrupted aspects of nature are saved (see Psalm 96).

What does all this mean practically? First, that God is not an enemy of the unbeliever: “For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all” (Rom. 11:32). Whoever they are, God loves them and Christ died for them. Our friend/foe thinking is overcome. We should not take their unbelief more seriously than God who makes his sun rise over the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and unjust (Matt. 5:45). The Christian congregation is a witness to the divine action for the benefit of all (“God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise…” 1 Cor. 1:27).

Some final questions: Moltmann seems to say that this world, God’s original creation, was made good, but not perfect (corruptible). Thus, it is constantly threatened by chaos, and death is present always. Is there a reason it has had to go through such travail to someday arrive at the incorruptible, perfect world? Finally, if Christ has conquered the powers of annihilation and all shall be saved, then why is God waiting? Why not have brought the final judgement right after Christ arose? Of course, that would mean I wouldn’t be here to write this post and I don’t exactly want that either….

Tags: theology

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Michael Westmoreland-White // Mar 7, 2007 at 4:20 pm

    In Germany, most of the Protestant churches have merged. Moltmann is part of the Evangelical Church—which is a merger of the Lutheran and Reformed. He’s clearly more Reformed than Lutheran. Of course, more than most German Protestants, Moltmann has also been influenced by Mennonites and Pentecostals.

  • 2 Jason // Mar 7, 2007 at 5:00 pm

    Thanks Michael, it helps to know where he is coming from.

  • 3 isaac // Mar 10, 2007 at 4:43 am

    Jason, thanks for the post on Moltmann. I don’t think we have ever posted on him before. To be honest, he’s never someone I’ve wrestled with. I sorta read his book, The Trinity and the Kingdom, but it hasn’t stuck in my head. I know he’s gaining popularity in the U.S. I think I remember the Christian Century making some claim about how Moltmann is the most significant theologian for contemporary North American theology. I guess part of it might be that Miroslav Wolf, a student of Moltmann, has an influential position at Yale.

    “Why does God wait?” That’s a great question. I wonder the same thing. At a bible study a few months ago, somehow our conversation turned to something like this question. And someone made the connection between the way we are called to be patient (which is the Mennonite virtue par excellence) because that’s what God is like. Then something Barthian occurred to me: We know that God is patient because that’s the life Jesus lived. All those ‘omni-’s (omnipotent, omniscient, etc.) may be important, but they are sidelined if we start our talk about God with Jesus. He lives a life of patience—a patience that refuses to short cut death, and a patience that refuses to kill his enemies. He suffers because he is patient. Doesn’t that tell us something essential about God, and the way God works out the world’s redemption?

    Another thing that always comes to mind when I think about the post-judgment life, life after death, life in the new heaven and new earth. At the end of Revelation (ch. 21), the new heaven and new earth takes the form of a city. It’s not some abstract “cosmos” or “new world”—rather, it’s the new Jerusalem. And what’s so remarkable about this city is that it’s walls are forever breached. “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut” (vv24-25). Isn’t that interesting? This city has commerce with an outside. And the forces outside, “the nations”, are free to enter into it, but that is not reason for fear. They are welcomed to come and go. “The nations will walk by it’s light.” What kind of dispossessive city is this? It gives it’s light freely to the darkness outside. The electric company doesn’t charge!

    I think this image at the end of the Bible might mean something interesting for how we conceive of the final judgment, and life after the judgment.

  • 4 Michael Westmoreland-White // Mar 11, 2007 at 1:01 pm

    In my first year in seminary (‘86), I read Moltmann’s The Crucified God and it blew me away. He has been one of my favorite theologians ever since. My wife, Kate, also is a big Moltmann fan, but got her first initiation with The Church in the Power of the Spirit.

  • 5 Jason // Mar 14, 2007 at 5:15 pm

    Yeah, the more I read of Moltmann the bigger fan I become. So far I’ve only been reading God Will be All in All which is actually a collection of essays interacting with Moltmann. I’m hoping to pick up Coming of God sometime soon.

    Isaac, I think your idea of this virtue of patience is a great place to start. I was reading further today in my Moltmann book and he brings up the idea of the old creation needing a “conversion.” That the current corruptible creation is opened up to conversion at the resurrection of Jesus, but in order for that conversion not to be a destructive one the current time is a period of “modulation” or transition from the corruptible to the incorruptible. That seems possible, but it seems no matter how long this conversion time lasts the shift to a new creation will be drastic—how could it not? Anyhow, something worth thinking about.

    I also like the idea of seeing the city of Revelation as dispossesive—the opposite of the Babylon, Rome which had strict definitions of who was in (i.e. a Roman) and who was out.

  • 6 Kathi // Mar 19, 2007 at 5:15 am

    What Moltmann describes is very similar to the belief system that those who come close to death seem to envision after their close brush with dying. Whether from trauma or illness, many people have their complete belief system turned upside down after what is known as a near death experience (NDE).

    After an NDE, those who are part of the “friend or foe” system seem to “instantly convert” to something very different wherein they believe that all will be lovingly shown their mistakes and healed in a spiritual way before joining others in a place of light (as in universalism). The NDEers lives are PROFOUNDLY changed. Perhaps this is “God’s creative justice” as Molmanm calls it. What you will hear from these people is that each experience it unique and that you “get what you need emotionally and spiritually” to be relieved of your accumulated hurt and pain.

    I think many NDEers, myself included, will find Moltmann’s interpretation very refeshing and close to the truth we feel we briefly inhabited and experienced somehow. You will never be the same after such an experience. Many experiencers find it difficult to return to “the wrong message” being delivered from the pulpit.

    You can Google the International Association of Near Death Studies (IANDS) for stories about such people and their experiences. On the site you will be able to read about the ways people struggle to interpret and integrate what they have experienced. They are usually interpreted by the person as a spiritual experience that is beyond all words and forms of human understanding and expression. The word you will hear many times is ineffable, but they attempt to describe what new meaning near death has brought to their lives.

    Unfortunately, many churched people tend to ignore and usually feel threatened and/or frightened by the NDEers and their stories, probably in the same way that Moltmann ideas are seen as fairly radical. Perhaps even Paul and his Damascus Road experience would be received the same way today. It makes me wonder what time has done to change the meaning of spiritual things that Moltmann seems to want to make right again.

  • 7 Jason // Mar 22, 2007 at 8:26 am

    Kathi, thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. Honestly, I haven’t read much about NDEs so I’m appreciative of the overview you give. I think your connection between Moltmann’s “creative justice” and NDErs who “get what they need emotionally and spiritually” to be relieved of their hurt and pain is a key connection. One of the things that has long troubled me about any view of the final judgment, universalism included, is that it often does not deal with how the oppressors and the oppressed, the murderers and the murdered will reconcile. I would be interested in learning if there is any experiences of “judgment” by NDErs as an experience of “setting things right” or “cleansing” of those things we’ve done that make us the offenders.

    That’s one of things I appreciated most about Moltmann’s talk—that he didn’t shy away from that difficult question of what justice looks like for both the downtrodden and those that do the treading. Moltmann calls it “God’s creative justice” and he describes it both in terms of something like the reconciliation committees in South Africa and Paul’s description of having our works tried by fire.

  • 8 Kathi // Mar 24, 2007 at 9:03 am

    God is experienced by NDEers as pure overwhelming Love and Light that pierces every fiber of your being. It is pure unimaginable joy to be in the presence of something this loving and affirming. It is a joy beyond anything we can ever perceive of with our own limited human understanding. Words are totally inadequate. And somehow in these experiences we are made to feel worthy of receiving it. This is an integral and universal part of an NDE experience. You are unable to refuse the incredible healing and blessings that flow into you. At least this was my experience as well as the experience of many others I know.

    However, my very next statement will be that I cannot speak with true authority as an intentional offender or murderer, so I cannot proclaim any actual redemption or cleansing in this regard. I can only speak of MY experience which is unique to all others regarding personal issues and try to explain what others say they experienced who ARE offenders. Criminal court justice in this world is indeed a cat and mouse game compared to the justice that God creates with his omnipotent divineness.

    God’s redemption is NOT one size fits all! How could it be when coming from something so mighty. What was almost seared into me was that his mercy and justice is beyond what we as humans can ever envision. We are retributive, he is healing. He can give truly authentic justice and healing, we cannot. Moltmann’s lectures in this regard jumped off the page at me as truth when he discusses creative justice. I personally felt that creative justice and healing he speaks of on my own behalf. It renewed me and changed my perspectives as briefly follows. But I am still full of unanswered questions.

    Life here is to some degree always diseased with egos and hurtful ways that people navigate through life. Either due to lack of knowledge, poor coping methods, bad choices, horrible abusive environments, etc. . . Sometimes a swill of circumstances sweep souls into ugly existences that can begin from the moment we are born. Does God ignore these tragedies? Does he expect every person to heal themselves once they reach some age of accountability? Although some are able to break free of their past, I think this is impossible for some if not the majority and their lives become destroyed.

    God is seen by NDEers as a loving parent who would always welcome home the prodigal son or daughter (i.e. offenders)even after death. Is this a novel way to interpret an old parable? This is NOT what I was taught in church within the friend or foe theme. In my experience, it is taught as . . . “it is not too late for you to come home BEFORE you die.” But death is usually made out to be a point of no return for the prodigal. I think most would find it terribly offensive for evil to be given redemption even under God’s authority as they are impatient for human justice. We are not a witness to the consequences of the perpetrator and are unable to trust God as the final judge, except to hope that they will “burn in hell” for their sins and the pain they have caused. And perhaps they will, but with a different outcome than we might imagine.

    Too easy for people to do as they wish and then come “home” you say? Not at all. I did not say there were NO consequences. The consequences are just not from the human realm of understanding. I am convinced that God is more merciful than we can comprehend but does not choose to have us know everything.

    My impression is that you will be tried by fire and all that is NOT of God WILL be destroyed. It must be. But this does not mean that the murderous PERSON will be destroyed. They will be healed by the fire of God’s Loving Light of Justice only AFTER truly owning and experiencing the hurt of their victim(s). I believe that oceans of gut wrenching true tears of remorse will be endured while almost simultaneously being forgiven and transformed. If this is not being tried by fire before God, I don’t know what is. The victim and the offender will both receive God’s healing, however, one path has more joy from the very beginning.

    I have talked with medical professionals who have interviewed murderers who have had NDEs. I am told the perpetrators are forever changed by their experience. What is difficult is since we cannot really know the heart of the individual as God can, we will always be suspicious that they are trying to “work the system” or reduce their time with “good behavior”. We dismiss their experience through our own anger at their deeds. Forgiveness is extremely difficult if not impossible for society to give because we can never know a person as God does. No thoughts or deeds can be hidden from him.

    Before my experience, my religious upbringing made me feel that I may never be good enough to please God and might never see whatever place he has prepared for us. I don’t feel that way now. I seemed to have gone someplace where God knew my every thought and deed and still accepted me and loved me with a greater love than I ever knew was possible. I believe all of our imperfections will be perfected when we are released from our physical bodies and our hearts and minds will be healed and reconciled which will give us the ability to be in God’s presence with confidence and joy. To me this is the true essence of being reborn after my NDE.

    I am told that due to modern medicine, almost 30 million people have had these experiences. I think this could have a profound change in our culture.

    I hope this helps you begin to understand those who have had such an experience.

  • 9 Jason // Mar 26, 2007 at 12:43 pm

    Kathi, thanks for taking the time to fill me in. I don’t have much to add other than that I saw a recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy a couple nights ago and thought it interesting that the whole episode was about an NDE that the main character has. Obviously this is a topic many are eager to discuss. And strangely enough, the main objection (at least in the show) was not a religious objection but a scientific one (Meredith remarks that this must be her brain firing off randomly to which the characters in her NDE reply “no, this is your afterlife). I think that makes sense though as the main objections in the western world to anything religious/paranormal is that there must be a scientific explanation, as though to have a “scientific explanation” automatically invalidates the experience. Ok, enough digression 😉

  • 10 Jonathan Smith // Mar 3, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    Hello, your site came up in a Google search as I was looking for information on Jurgen Moltmann. Pardon the intrusion into a very old blog, but I did want to pose a challenge before leaving. You state above (as a summary of Moltmann’s view):

    “How will Christ appear? As divine avenger? No.”

    However the Scripture (and it cannot be broken), answers “Yes.”

    “...when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels,
    in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe, because our testimony among you was believed. ” 2 Thessalonians 1:7b-10

    Christ will indeed be a divine avenger. We must beware of recreating God in our preferred image . This is idolatry.

    Jonathan Smith

  • 11 Justin // Sep 27, 2010 at 6:50 am

    I realize I’m a bit late to the discussion.

    I agree with Jonathan. It seems the universalist must ignore certain scripture in order to believe that all will be saved. In particular, the parable of Lazerus and the statement Jesus made about destruction of the soul (Matthew 10:28).

    I’ve read quite a few accounts of NDE experiencers and cannot discount their experiences whatsoever. However, I will not discount God’s word either. Perhaps people who experience NDEs, including murderers in prison have already accepted God or their hearts were inclined to accept God if given the opportunity.

    But based on scripture, I have to leave open the possibility that there will be those that even in death will reject God and do so proudly. Is this not the unpardonable sin?